Canadian tennis takes centre stage at the Rogers Cup, which begins tomorrow at the Rexall Centre in Toronto. Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil enter the tournament having just contested the first all-Canadian ATP final at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. on Sunday. Raonic has the bigger profile, and holds an ATP top-10 ranking, but Pospisil is now an established talent in his own right, having also reached the semifinals in Montreal a year ago. The event is headlined by Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, but expect to hear and read lots about Canadian tennis over the next week.
It has been a sizzling year for Canadian tennis. Eugenie Bouchard has reached the semifinals of all three Grand Slams this year, and Raonic scored his first Slam semifinal weeks ago at Wimbledon. Tennis Canada's current slogan is "Tennis Is Canada," and these two players are the faces of the new movement. One need only take a cursory look around the Rexall Centre to grasp the extent of Raonic's influence on tennis in the country. The Grandstand has been officially named the "Milos Raonic Grandstand" for the tournament and his face is front and centre on all promotional materials; Rogers Cup tickets feature Raonic alongside Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal. The narrative that Canadian tennis is on the rise has been very popular in the last 12 months, but having walked the grounds the last two days, it feels very real.
Rogers Cup organizers will be pleased to have that Canadian fervour to rely on, in no small part because of Rafael Nadal's withdrawal from the tournament. The defending champion withdrew days before the event, citing a wrist injury that will also cause the world number 2 to miss the Cincinnati Masters. Nadal's withdrawal will likely be felt more by the fans, who were given extensive and free access to the top players over the weekend. The "Pizzaville Free Community Weekend" allowed fans to roam the grounds of the Rexall Centre and watch top players practice while also being able to take in the qualifying matches. In a sport where fans form such strong allegiances to their favourites, the Nadal fans missed out as Federer, Djokovic, Murray et. al. entertained the throngs of patrons who turned out.
What does Nadal's absence mean for the rest of the field? Milos Raonic fielded this question at the Citi Open and his response was telling: "It's unfortunate to see him go but ... there are too many that are hungry and are licking their chops." That is likely the case for everybody not named Djokovic, the only player on the ATP who has shown an ability to deal with Nadal on a regular basis. For everybody else, Raonic included, the draw opens up for someone to have an easier path to the final in Toronto. Roger Federer assumes the number two seed in Nadal's stead. With Nadal out, and unable to defend his 2000 ranking points over the next two weeks, Djokovic has the chance to open up a sizeable lead over Rafa atop the ATP rankings.
At last year's event in Montreal, Vasek Pospisil made a surprise run to the semifinals. This year, he's drawn Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic in his quarter and Richard Gasquet (a quick turnaround for the pair after meeting in the Citi Open semifinals this week) in the first round, making a repeat effort unlikely. Raonic is a defending finalist and, and may well lick his chops into the the semifinals again. With Berdych and Gulbis in his quarter, and a relatively weak half of the draw overall, the Canadian has every chance of making another deep run. It remains to be seen how he will cope with the added attention that comes with playing on home turf, having grown up in nearby Thornhill, Ontario.
While Canadian fans will root for the home boys, the tournament (even in Nadal's absence) is littered with players who are just as likely, if not more so, to walk away with the title on Sunday. Novak Djokovic has been virtually unbeatable on hard courts for anyone not named Nadal or Wawrinka in the last 18 months. Roger Federer has regained most of the form that slipped away in 2013, and Andy Murray has won this event twice. In fact, no player outside of Nadal, Djokovic, Federer or Murray has won the Rogers Cup in the last 10 years. The player most capable of breaking that trend is 2014 Australian Open champion, Stan Wawrinka. He's shown he has no qualms about rising to the occasion against the world's best. Canadians may have to wait a bit longer to crown Milos or Vasek their champion.
Notable First Round Matches:
Gasquet - Pospisil
Robredo - Kohlschreiber
Simon - Thiem
Giraldo - Kyrgios
Click here for more pics from the "Pizzaville Free Community Weekend."